The Story Behind the UC San Diego Pep Band and How They Learned to March to the Beat of Their Own Drum

The UC San Diego pep band offers a fun and fulfilling outlet for UCSD’s many passionate musicians.

On the sidelines of any UC San Diego basketball or volleyball game, you can find members of the UCSD pep band, cheering as loudly as they can, stomping their feet, and playing their hearts out on their various instruments. Their spirit and vigor make any competitive-sport environment more exciting and their blaring renditions of pop songs and fight songs reverberate off the walls of the venues they play in.

The simple truth is that the pep band exists for the sake of fun — to spread it, share it, experience it with each other, and to create it for those who come and listen. The band doesn’t offer any class credit and enforces no strict time commitment. The musicians are there purely because they enjoy both the music and each other’s company.

Sixth College junior Paul Wilson, majoring in math and computer science, is the assistant manager and plays the piccolo in the pep band. An unusual choice of instrument, some might say, but Wilson liked the pitch of the piccolo, which is even higher than that of a flute. He was head drum major in his high school’s marching band and stumbled upon a pep band rehearsal during Week 0 of his freshman year.

“Week 0 of freshman year, I was just trying to find friends. I went to RIMAC to play ping-pong with my roommate. We heard music, and me being a band geek, I had to go! It was my people!” Wilson said. “They ended up being on the fourth floor of RIMAC. No announcements had been made for freshmen to come; I just happened to find them.”

Encouraged by a friend, he decided to join, and he hasn’t regretted it since. Other students like Wilson had assumed their musical careers were over when they graduated from high school and came to UCSD. Kyle Pineda, a senior from Sixth College majoring in biochemistry and cell biology is one of the head conductors of the pep band, but before joining his freshman year, he never imagined he’d continue to play his saxophone or trumpet in college.

“When I first came to UCSD, I thought my music career was done. I didn’t even bring any instruments. Week 0, I showed up to pep band’s rehearsal without an instrument. I was interested, so I came back with my instrument the next week,” Pineda said. “I distinctly remember a moment when we were playing something and I thought to myself, ‘Wow, this is exactly where I need to be right now.’ It really clicked for me right away during Week 1 of freshman year.”

The pep band plays from a songbook filled with the sheet music for about 60 to 70 different songs. They play plenty of pop songs that audiences will recognize and get excited about, but they like to stray from the beaten path when it comes to the artists they cover.

“Compared to other college bands, we tend to have a lesser percentage of recognizable pop and rock pieces, but they’re very fun to play for us. Sometimes we play ska music, which is a mixture of pop, rock music, a little bit of jazz,” Pineda said. “Sometimes we consider expanding our book a bit to have more songs people might recognize and if we really need to play something that people need to recognize, we can do that. But it always comes back to the idea that most of the time, we’re playing for our enjoyment.”

A pep-band favorite is the punk rock band Streetlight Manifesto, whose songs the band always saves for the end of gigs and rehearsals. The title of the traditional rehearsal-ending song aptly reflects the band’s teamwork-oriented mindset.

“A standout song is ‘We Will Fall Together.’ After every rehearsal, we have a tradition: We finish all the songs we’re practicing, the conductor cuts us off, and we start packing up. Then the drummers start playing a song, starting off with a drum beat. Usually, it’s ‘We Will Fall Together,’” Wilson said. “It’s the most rambunctious, weird song. It’s really cool because the conductors aren’t conducting us, we’re just walking around and doing it on our own. I don’t know how to describe it, but it’s really fun. That’s one of my favorites.”

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The pep band’s versatile repertoire means it is able to play at a variety of different events, including men’s and women’s basketball and volleyball games. There, the musicians cheer vociferously, taunting the opposing free throw shooters. For their numbers, they play very loudly, their music bouncing off the gym walls. They truly seem a part of the sports teams’ success.

The band has also performed at water polo games, played in a few parades off campus, and have been invited to play at campus dining halls. The group even played on Library Walk during Founder’s Day. The favorite event seems to be the parade and the battle of the bands showdown at the UC Davis Picnic Day, which is — as Pineda puts it — “the culmination of the year.”

“We take an eight-hour bus ride up to Davis and the bus is usually full. We have a parade, and then…we’ll have the Battle of the Bands. It’s a lot of fun. It can last anywhere from six to eight hours,” Pineda said. “One of the older students always told me, don’t play during the parade, because you’re not going to be fine later. I didn’t listen to him and I was so tired! We usually go all the way till Davis wants to end, and then we head out.”

Besides the UCSD pep band, those participating in the mock competition include bands from UC Berkeley, UCLA, UC Irvine, Humboldt State University, Stanford University, and of course, the UC Davis marching band. As assistant manager, Wilson is in charge of organizing the trip to the event.

“It’s so much fun. All the music we practice and everything we do leads up to that. For the Battle of the Bands, all the bands are lined up, and one band will play a song, then the next, and so on. It loops back around and the first band to repeat a song loses,” Wilson said. “This goes on from noon until sometimes 2 a.m. It’s just a blast. It’s exhausting, but it’s absolutely my favorite part of the year. Just being around the other schools; it’s essentially like a big party.”

The camaraderie among the band’s members seems to be a highlight for most musicians who are part of it. Lily Dunn, a freshman from Eleanor Roosevelt College majoring in political science, plays tuba in the pep band. As a commuter student, she found it was hard to make friends when she started at UCSD.

“Joining the pep band enabled me to kind of have a social life and get some friends. Whenever you’re in a group that hangs out all the time — we have rehearsal every week for two hours — it’s a natural thing that you end up making friends in the group,” Dunn said. “I really like the community that comes out of it, and all the friendships.”

When asked what his favorite part of playing in the pep band was, Pineda didn’t hesitate before answering.

“Not to be cliche, but it’s always the people, my friends. Games are really fun; they’re a lot of yelling and heckling,” Pineda said. “It’s kind of disappointing sometimes that there’s not a lot of people at games here. But for us, it kind of makes it more fun because you can hear everything we’re yelling at the players. There’s nothing to drown us out.”

The band doesn’t require auditions and it’s open to musicians at all levels. They rehearse once a week and they encourage interested students to check out their website online if they want to join.

“We would accept anyone, quite literally. We’ve had students who have come in and didn’t even know how to read music and they became officers since then,” Wilson said. “It’s not a class, there’s no credit, and it’s 100 percent volunteer. There’s no strict time commitment either, because we understand that all the members are students and we’re here at UCSD to be students. Because of that, the players who do come tend to be confident and strong.”

Pineda would love to see the pep band grow and build up its numbers, which would give it a more consistent sound. The more members they have, the more likely they’ll have every instrument they need playing at each gig. He successfully recruited many people for the band this year, and they had a high turnout at their first meeting, but a lack of organization meant that not everyone stuck around throughout the quarter.

“Some people might say, we’ll sound better if we’re smaller and we practice more. But at least for me, the way I look at it, the more people we have, the easier it will be to sound better,” Pineda said. “The size that we’re aiming for is maybe like 50 people that consistently show up.”

Wilson agrees that an ideal situation would see the band grow, especially because UCSD is planning to transition its sports teams to Division I.

“Ideally, we’re hoping to see the pep band grow, just because sports will become a bigger deal at UCSD, and we’ll want a bigger band to hype the crowd up. If the band can grow later, I would love that. But I won’t complain if that doesn’t happen because I’m very happy with how the pep band is right now and I wouldn’t change it,” Wilson said. “What I want in the future is for everyone in the pep band to be there because they want to be there. It’s a good time where everyone is really happy. It might sound cliche, but that is what I want for the pep band.”

The group seems an ideal chance for any musician, proficient or aspiring, to get a chance to do something they love with other people who enjoy it as much as they do. At basketball games, they joke and laugh with each other, pausing to play out their Streetlight Manifesto songs and cheer at the top of their lungs. It’s not hard to see the appeal of such a close-knit group and the band members’ testimonies speak for themselves.

“This is my main friend group,” Wilson said. “My lifelong friends are being made in the pep band.”

Photo by Kyle Szeto. 

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